“What Do You Want Me to Regret?”: An Interview with François Ewald
Johannes Boehme interviews François Ewald, Los Angeles Review of Books, 3 November 2017
NOBODY COULD HAVE PREDICTED, in 1968, that François Ewald would one day receive the French state’s highest order for civil merit. At the time he was a young, ambitious, and radical philosophy student. He became a Maoist, demonstrated in the streets of Paris, and witnessed the violence that followed. In the early 1970s he went to the countryside. There he found himself swept up in one of France’s most notorious criminal scandals, the “Affaire Bruay-en-Artois.” A young miners’ daughter was killed, a lawyer was arrested (and later released), and the radical left staged mass demonstrations against “class violence.” It was then, in the small town of Bruay-en-Artois, that he first met Michel Foucault. Soon Ewald would become Foucault’s assistant at the Collège de France and one of his closest associates.
Ewald wrote a masterful 600-page dissertation, supervised by Foucault, on the history of the French welfare state. Foucault, who died in June 1984, never got to read the final version. After Foucault’s death, Ewald became the de facto executor of his estate. He edited most of his unfinished manuscripts and lectures. He also took a job in an unlikely field for a Foucauldian: the insurance industry. He struck up relationships with captains of industry like Claude Bébéar, the founder of AXA, and Denis Kessler, the CEO of SCOR, a French financial services company. In 2006 he received the Légion d’honneur.
And during the early 2000s his views seemed to change as well. He became a vocal advocate for liberal reforms of the French welfare state. He opposed the introduction of the 35-hour workweek and argued for the privatization of the pension-system.
Where did [Foucault’s] interest in liberalism come from?
His interest wasn’t ideological. It was a way to criticize traditional political philosophy. He didn’t study liberalism out of personal conviction, but as a way of passage — to get a clearer sense of what government actually meant. He was drawn to it, because it was so relevant to understand the contemporary situation. But he was much more interested in its epistemology than its politics. To read his lectures on liberalism as a statement of approval makes absolutely no sense. But on the other hand, there is a complication. Foucault didn’t believe in socialism. He wanted to criticize government practices. And liberalism at the time was one avenue of government-critique in France. But only one among many.
Recently there has been a heated debate about Michel Foucault’s attitude toward neoliberalism. The sociologist Daniel Zamora accused Foucault of adhering to neoliberal ideas. Do you agree?
Let me tell you two things. First of all, I am completely fed up with this entire discussion. Secondly, in terms of actual evidence, the claim that Michel Foucault held neoliberal views is just so far-fetched. Look, during those weeks in which Foucault was lecturing about liberalism at the Collège de France, he also visited Ayatollah Khomeini at Neauphle-le-Château. The Iranian Revolution happened shortly afterward and Foucault was particularly interested in the events in Tehran. He was fascinated by the fact that people were willing to die for a religious idea in the streets of Tehran! But nobody would say that he became a militant supporter of the Iranian Revolution. Based on the evidence it doesn’t make more sense to say that Foucault was a closet neoliberal, either.